An insight into the world of Kona through the experience of Sally Emerson

For those that don’t know, can you briefly describe what Kona is?

“Kona” is the colloquial name for the Ironman World Championships Event. It takes place in Hawai’i, the birthplace of the Ironman event, in a town called Kailua-Kona.

Tell us about about what getting to Kona entails?

There are a few ways to get to Kona, but the most well known route – and the way I got my slot – is to qualify in your age group at a full distance Ironman event. GTN do a great explainer of all qualification routes here, and feel free to drop me a message. 

2023 is an exciting time for women in the sport, as Ironman are offering extra women’s slots at some of their races, in addition to the proportional age group slots (which often leave many of the female categories with a single spot). Check out here.

Did you enjoy the training? What were the highs and lows? 

I loved it. As it was my second Ironman I was very prepared for the amount of commitment it would take to be at the start line in my best possible shape. 

The highs would include some of the smash-y track sessions with the LFTC crew and my first sub-5 half ironman at Cotswolds. Feeling super fit is so empowering and one of the reasons I love long distance. Low points were all the times I had to miss training due to illness, or injury prevention when I felt a niggle. I would always feel so helpless and scared that I would be dramatically losing fitness. Each year I race I’ll gain perspective on how 2 weeks off is not the end of the world!

How did LFTC support you?

In so many ways. Sessions wise, the main support was through the weekly track sessions. Special mention to Head Coach JJ for the sets and Olivier and Tom Roffey for pushing me around Mile End Track. Outside of the sessions, the people I’ve met through LFTC have made engaging in this take-over-your-life activity so enjoyable. I find the other athletes at the club really inspiring. Whether they’re smashing the age group champs, swimming ridiculously long distances or balancing parenthood with training, I love to hear about the stories of the other club members. I’ve made some of my closest friends through the club and they help to form the support team that I lean on during the lows and bounce off during the highs.

What was the event like, and the atmosphere?

The Ironman World Champs is known for being special in the way the event extends far beyond race day; it starts and finishes on the plane to/from the Big Island. At San Diego airport I started spotting my people – previous Ironman participant bag on back and bike box in toe, they must be here for the Ironman. Whilst normally fairly introverted, I made many Ironman friends at the gate, on the plane and in the oversized baggage collection. I spent the entire flight talking to the husband of a woman who was racing Kona for the 10th(!) time this year!

Race week itself was full of many more connections and training on the roads which I’d watched in previous race footage and various youtube channels: Ali’i Drive, Palani Road, The Queen K. This was prime time for triathlon celeb spotting –  legends like the GTN team and Bob Babbitt.  Despite the very intimidating field, this was not a race I was going to podium in, so in some senses the pressure was off. My nerves were replaced by excitement.


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Onto race day.

The Kona swim is a waved mass start. I entered the water with ~150 athletes 18-29, and we swam about 100m to the holding area before the start line, enclosed by paddle boarders encouraging us to move closer together. We were shoulder to shoulder for several minutes, kicking each other on the shins below the water whilst smiling politely above water. I could feel the nerves and the excitement and see it in my competitors’ faces too. A countdown, and the horn goes off. No going back now. Time to execute the plan. For the first half of the swim I was in the middle of a pack of ~10 women. The aggressive swimmers at the lido prepared me well for the feet tapping and shoulder rubbing. As we turned round the halfway buoy, I decided to push on and try and join a pack ahead. It turns out they were green hats – slower swimmers from the previous wave. After ~1km of swimming over green hats by myself I found myself back in the original pack feeling like a fool. 

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Sooner than expected the pier (transition) was in sight. First stop in transition is the hose pipe showers for washing off the salt to minimise chafing. There was a strict no peeing in transition rule, but after the showers they’d provided a trough which I used to relieve myself keeping my tri suit on for efficiency. Something new for race day! Cleats on, I ran to my bike and then to the mount line.

49c779ee-009f-4fb5-ad05-1bbe093c3c2bThe first 10k of the bike is in town. This was not the time to rush, instead I tried to focus on getting a bit of nutrition in and taking in the atmosphere before the real work starts. Coming down Palani Road a woman crashed her bike in front of me. I was reminded to be sensible – finishing the race is the first goal. Coming back up Palani marked the end of our town section and as I turned onto the Queen K this was the time to focus. 85k heading North, and then we turn around. It was busy. I focused on keeping my distance and overtaking within the rules. The first penalty tent I passed had over 10 people in it! 5 mins on the side of the hot road is not what I need.


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Every 10 minutes my watch reminded me to drink water, eat a sweet or have a sip of my gel cocktail. Every aid station I followed the routine: 

  1. Ditch empty water bottle
  2. Pick up water bottle and pour over myself: neck and feet to cool me down, handlebars and hands to wash off the gel which was joining me to my bike]
  3. Pick up a second water bottle and treasure the few sips that will still be cold. 

I was moving slower than I’d planned but I knew my effort level was right. There was meant to be a tail wind on the way home, so I’ll make it up then, surely? At the halfway point is the climb to Hawi, this is the first time in 80k we’ve seen supporters and it’s exciting to hear their cheering and listen to some motivational music. At the top of the hill, a hairpin turn and back to Kona we go. Come on tailwind push me home.

The tailwind doesn’t come. Worse – a headwind?! This wasn’t in the plan. My second half surely can’t be slower than the first? Oh well. Keep up the nutrition, stay in aero, save some legs for the run. Just keep cycling. Apart from the hill at the halfway point the course is rolling up and down, but with the headwind it was pretty unforgiving. As we reached the middle of the day the heat had picked up. The lava rocks surrounding the roads make this perfect oven territory, over 40ºC. In the final 20km I watch the pro women tackle the run.. A couple of them are walking, oh dear. Maybe I’m not the only one to find the bike tough. 178k, and finally a right hand turn. T2 here we come!!

My friends bagged the prime spot volunteering in transition on the row with my bike. I have my own personal film crew and my flatmate helps me put my bike in its spot before I run for my T2 bag and into the wee trough changing tent for the last time. Someone offers me a cold towel for my head – yes please! 

Out of T2 – the crowds slightly dazed from the heat and I gesture my hands to ask them to cheer. Before I head back to The Queen K I need all the support I can get. Similar to the bike, the first portion of the run is in town – along Ali’i Drive.


This portion was fun. My plan was to hold back the pace, focus on the nutrition and take in the support. There were locals with hosepipe showers, pumping music and humorous signs. I decided to walk up Palani Road – not on the plan but I was being cautious; if the professionals are walking I need to be careful. At the top of Palani, I say goodbye to the crowds and re-enter the isolated lava land. 

Always focusing on the next aid station, a different routine this time. 

  1. Water over my head. 
  2. Fill up my bottle. 
  3. Dip my cap in an ice bucket. 
  4. Pick up a gel – sip of cola when my stomach is bad. 
  5. Mahalo (thank you) to the volunteers. 

22km into the run, a left turn – into the Energy Lab. More like Energy Sucking Lab. Somehow even hotter than the Queen K, but countered by a beautiful view of the ocean. At 28km nearing the end of the Energy Lab, my friend from the plane was supporting and gave me a big cheer. What a lift: I can do this! 

After the slight climb out of the Energy Lab I know the rest is slightly down. Time to pick up the pace and set my sights on the finish line. I start to overtake. My pace speeds up by 15s / km. There’s still something left in the can! Down Palani – I spot my parents and friends in their team rash vests, half a mile away in the opposite direction to the finish line and then back onto Ali’i drive. The crowds are 5 people thick. The finish line is in sight! I can hear Mike Riley (the “voice of Ironman”) in the distance. Just keep my legs moving… 


And I’ve finished. Overwhelmed with gratitude for the organisers, volunteers, my support team. Overwhelmed with inspiration of all the athletes I shared the course with. Overwhelmed with pride for my achievement. 

What advice would you give to someone hoping to take on Kona one day?

You’ve got this! If you’ve qualified through age group or Legacy you have already proven yourself as an awesome athlete. It’s a tough race but definitely conquerable. 

What’s next in the pipeline for Sally Emerson?

The Big Question. Seeing all the other athletes at Kona, I really feel like my best Ironman time is ahead of me and this is only the start. I’m still pinning down my race calendar for next year, but definitely another ironman distance event. Getting to and from Kona was expensive in funds, time and carbon footprint so I will be looking for something more local and in driving distance next year. Until Christmas, I’ll be enjoying social rides, trail runs and hope to join more LFTC sessions. 


One response to “An insight into the world of Kona through the experience of Sally Emerson

  1. Oh Sally you are one of a kind, the amazing performances you do are a direct outcome of the grit and heart you put into doing the long hard work.
    Keep being an inspiration to your friends and the club 🙂

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